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When Your Guppy Gives Up - When Swim Lessons Don't Go Well

Sometimes swim lessons don’t go as planned. I’ve witnessed this exact situation from time to time in my many years as a swimming instructor. Anything can go wrong: from crying and screaming to refusing 
to participate to ignoring the swim instructor. Maybe your child was excited about swimming lessons before you left the house, but fell apart at some point before
 or during the class. Or maybe your child didn’t want to go at all. For a parent, this situation can be frustrating because you’re spending valuable time and money on lessons with the hope that your child will learn to be safe and confident in the water, and then your child doesn’t even want to participate.

If things aren’t going well, don’t give up! Before you abandon the swimming lessons altogether, try these tips for quelling flare-ups and adjusting your child’s attitude.

Remember, (with no offence intended), children can be master manipulators. They’re not evil, they just know how to get what they want. The bond between you and your child is a strong one. It started before they came into the world, sharing genetics, blood, and hormones.
 As soon as they exited the womb, they started developing a chemical bond with both parents through skin-to-
skin contact. This touch-relationship increases oxytocin production. Known as the ‘love hormone,’ oxytocin cements feelings of affection and tenderness. This is a wonderful sensation, and it shouldn’t be discounted. But it also creates a loophole for children to manipulate their parents more easily than they can other adults. When it comes to necessities, like learning how to swim, it benefits your kids to be more detached from you. Thankfully, because the instructor doesn’t have the same chemical bond that you share with your child, it’s easier for them to judge the child’s true level of fear of swimming.

Be patient and positive. The most common cause for misbehavior at swim lessons is true fear, followed closely by a plain-old “I-don’t-wanna-do-it” tantrum. Kids want to please their parents, but they also know exactly what they can get away with without crossing the threshold for getting into trouble. A tantrum paired with a declaration of “I’m scared!” is a great way for a child to maneuver their way out of something they don’t feel like doing. But swim lessons are not the time to allow your child to have their way. Learning to swim is lifesaving and 100 per cent necessary, no matter where you live. The best thing you can do is to keep pressing onward. Be patient and encouraging, but don’t give in to your child’s tears. Some kids simply need more time to warm up to the idea of swimming or to the pool environment in general.

Change it up. If you’ve been going to lessons for a while and you always receive the same reaction from your child, try making a change to the pattern. The solution could be as simple as having a different person bring your kid to swimming class. Kids know what they can get away with, with each parent. I’ve seen kids who cry as soon as they get to class when dad brings them, but come with a smile when mom takes them.

If that
 doesn’t work, 
try sitting
 out of sight or
 leaving when it’s 
lesson time. This 
makes putting on a
 show a futile effort, and
 kids often calm down quickly
 when there’s no one around to humor them. Of course, you’ll want to let the instructor know that you plan to do this so they can reassure your child that you’ll be back when the lesson is over.

Trust your instructor. If your instructor has been teaching for a while or has children of their own, they’ll have a good sense of who is actually scared of swimming and who is putting on a show. Though I’m not a mother, I’ve worked with children for the last 12 years teaching gymnastics and swimming, as well as serving
 as a summer camp counselor. I’ve seen every kind of outburst there is to see. In all my years watching over children, I’ve developed a sixth sense for crocodile tears and how to work through them.

One of the biggest mistakes parents make is not talking to the instructor for advice. Parents may think they know best, but sometimes fall victim to the bond they have with their child. Children who are coddled by their parents have a much harder time working with an instructor and often try to get out of swim lessons. Try to follow the swim teacher’s lead. If you undermine the instructor or make deals with your child that aren’t on the teacher’s agenda, you’re thwarting the teacher’s efforts to adjust your child’s attitude. I find that being firm and presenting a united front is far more effective than pitting parents against teachers. It’s the same concept as one parent being lenient and the other enforcing all the rules. Don’t make your swim teacher ‘the bad guy.’

Take some time off. If you decide to take some
time off from formal swim lessons, don’t quit pooltime altogether. Go swimming with your child regularly,
 but don’t push an agenda on them. Play games, splash each other, and be silly! You can throw some balls out into the water and help your child retrieve them or sink some dive toys on the steps and have them reach down to grab them. This valuable playtime builds your child’s relationship with the water. That way, when you do begin lessons again, their association with water will be a good one. You don’t want their most recent memory of the pool to be of throwing a fit, being frightened, or having a bad time in general.

Following these tips can make swim lessons a valuable experience rather than one of fear and frustration for your child - and you.

Lizzy is a WSI-certified Red Cross swimming instructor with over 12 years of experience teaching infants, children, and adults how to swim. Lizzy works as a swimming instructor and staff writer for AquaGear, a swim school and online swim shop. For more information, visit To visit the online swim shop, visit


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